When he traveled around with his rag-tag group of mercenaries, we were able to see Askeladd pull off an assassination against Thors and swindle Frankish nobility out of treasure, to name a few of his impressive deeds. Some people have the chops to perform brilliantly in small situations, but fail when the pressure increases. Askeladd is not one of these people. When given a grandiose stage and the political backing, he more than translates his capabilities to extremely important circumstances with significantly higher stakes. As if we needed any reminders, this story segment really went out of its way to demonstrate Askeladd’s mastery of manipulation.
He explains how it all works in the episode, and it’s pretty brilliant. First, he shapes public perception in favour of Canute and against King Sweyn by orchestrating the assassination. It gives public perception a more credible standing that Sweyn is trying to indirectly kill off Canute so that conflict over succession can be avoided. Which we know he is trying to do, only we also know he didn’t try to kill off Canute in this particular instance. Secondly, the king can no longer place Canute in a life-threatening position that may further support the rumours against him, since an orderly rule over the newly conquered England heavily depends on gaining public support. And finally, by openly leaking exactly how and why the situation played out to King Sweyn through Gunnar, it’s effectively a veiled political statement that Canute is no pushover and will also ruthlessly play out the Game of Thrones. And seeing how Sweyn doesn’t come across as foolish or incompetent, it’s natural to expect that he’ll get around to firing off some shots in return – and I would be excited to see how that plays out.
Other than the royal politicking, there was substantial humanisation of multiple characters throughout the episode. Notably the interactions between Leif and Thorfinn, as well as Askeladd and Bjorn. Leif, never forgetting his debt to Thors for saving his life, has searched for Thorfinn over the span of 11 years. His persistence is finally rewarded when he is able to meet Thorfinn in York. But his joy and relief, such that streams of tears flowed down his face, end up being extremely shortlived. Thorfinn refuses to return to Iceland, utterly consumed by his desire for revenge against Askeladd.
And Thorfinn has a point. What does Leif understand of the 11 years of suffering that Thorfinn has endured while continuously carrying hatred for Askeladd in his heart? That said, as Leif implores, Thorfinn has a family to return to. With his father dead and as the only son, he’s supposed to be the man of his house per medieval Nordic traditions. And it’s shameful that he’s left everything to his sister, strong as she may be, as well as failing to visit his mother while she’s ailing to death from an illness. Perhaps it could be better for Thorfinn to give up on revenge.
He does ask Leif about Vinland – showing a glimmer of hope, that in his heart, there’s that child-like wonder still seeking that land of salvation. But it’s no use. Such is his dependence on revenge, like an unimaginably addictive drug, that it’s robbed him of any semblance of reason. He angrily rejects Leif’s pleas to come back home, probably seeing his family as a weakness or distraction that hinders his revenge. And that really strikes home the tragedy of this situation, especially how far the boy has fallen.
Then we have Bjorn and Askeladd, two objectively evil men who have committed horrific deeds against innocent people, who are still able to have a profoundly touching moment. Though Bjorn always acted gruff and macho throughout the series, there had always been a soft heart underneath that exterior, hoping to gain the acknowledgement and friendship of Askeladd. Unfortunately, though he’s loyal to Askeladd, he’s realised for a long time that Askeladd disliked his men, and looked especially hurt by all the secrets he liked keeping from them – such as his Welsh heritage. And for Askeladd, we can see his feelings are… pretty complex. Yes, he hates these stinking Danish pigs by virtue of their ethnicity, because it was the Danes who repeatedly assaulted and tainted his beloved Welsh people.
But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about these men. He gave Atli enough gold to start a new life beyond mercenary work, and dueled a near-dead Bjorn so that he could go to Valhalla while seeking to give him a swift and painless death. We see him drop his playful and cool facade, when he accidentally misses Bjorn’s vital spot, immediately expressing concern and worry for the only man he’d ever considered to be his friend. Seeing such a raw and honest admission felt overwhelmingly emotional – and so we bid a fond farewell to our mushroom berserker, who has hopefully earned his entry into Valhalla. You’ll be missed.
Next up, we have a rematch between a now crippled Thorfinn and a now crippled Askeladd. We saw Thorfinn seethe with indescribable rage this episode when Leif attempted to persuade the boy into giving up his path, with renewed determination to kill his father’s murderer. But having just ended the life of his only friend, Askeladd seems to be emitting a far darker and intenser aura compared to his norm. Seems like this encounter will be far more frenetic than usual, and it will be exciting to see how it turns out next week. Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss. As always, thanks for reading this post and I’ll throw it over to Guardian Enzo for his thoughts and feelings about this episode!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
Well, that was certainly eventful.
Boy, there’s a lot going on in Vinland Saga at the moment. Pretty much every plotline we’ve been following for the last 20 episodes is converging at the ancient Roman town of York. York, by the way, is one of the coolest places anywhere in the British Isles – a walled city with large chunks of the battlements still extant (you can see where the neat Roman work stops and the ragged British work begins), a fantastically beautiful cathedral (York Minster – York has been a diocese since 314 A.D.) and some of the best food in the north of England.
Mind you in 1014 – ironically 700 years later on the dot – York was a festering shithole (to be fair, pretty much all of Britain was). The Vikings were using it as a base for slave trading, and King Swyen had headquartered himself there with the intention of making it the center of his empire. So it was at least a big shithole by the standard of the times. To this dump Leif has come, as we know – 11 years into his fruitless search for Thorfinn, which his one remaining crewman is urging him to abandon. Leif, Christian gentleman that he is, is horrified at the spectacle of the slave trading but unable to do anything about it.
We know a reckoning is coming between Canute and his father, and so do they – each of them is manoeuvring in advance of it in their own way. Askeladd is certain Sweyn will act to undercut his son at the council the next day, and in inimitable Askeladd fashion has taken pre-emptive measures. He stages a fake assassination attempt in order to arouse the gossip of the people and the troops, using a female slave (no male could be found as a lookalike) as the target. There are in fact two victims here – the slave woman and the assassin (who Thorfinn kills as part of the performance). Canute is furious to see the woman has died for him – but not so furious as to refuse to take advantage of the ploy.
Askeladd is indeed the spider here, as he’s certainly always spinning one web or another. But Floki is likewise a covert operator, acting as Sweyn’s agent against his son even if he’s not licensed to act yet. Askeladd knows what sort of man Floki is, and he knows things Floki doesn’t want known, which is an effective hedge. His plan has also tied Sweyn’s hand in acting against Canute, because suspicions are now rampant. Sweyn thinks he has a secret weapon in Gunnar spying for him, but Askeladd has naturally already sussed this out and does what any master strategist would do – rather than killing or exposing Gunnar, he’ll use him to make sure Sweyn knows exactly what Askeladd wants him to. Even Thorkell is grudgingly impressed.
In this den of intrigue and betrayal what happens between Thorfinn and Leif seems almost straightforward – but somehow even more tragic for that. Leif is no more and no less than he appears – a decent, peaceful man who loved Thors and wants to save his son as payment for all the big man did for him. Thorfinn is as cold as you can imagine – he asks not about his mother or sister, but about Vinland. I think the reason is clear – in Thorfinn’s mind, he’s already betrayed his father far too grievously to ever face his family again. The choice he’s made – revenge at all costs, including his soul – was also a choice to cut off his family and his home. All that remains to him after his mythical revenge is complete is the new world, and a the theoretical clean slate it offers. Truly, this is a lost boy.
Leif is an explorer, a pioneer – I suspect he’s true to his word about never giving up now that he’s finally found his elusive raft in a massive ocean. There’s a lot still to play out between Thorfinn and Leif, but for now the focus turns to Askeladd again – and to Bjorn, who lies dying in a lonely room inside the keep. Bjorn expresses concern for Askeladd’s leg, but he has ulterior motives – he just needs to know if Askeladd is still good to hold a sword. It’s immediately clear what that’s about, and Askeladd is certainly in no position to decline.
Though Thorfinn (goaded by Leif’s arrival, no doubt) challenges Askeladd to yet another duel the next day, Askeladd begs off to finish his business with Bjorn. Remember, a Viking has to die in battle to get to Valhalla – and Bjorn would surely choose to die at Askeladd’s hand before anyone else’s. Bjorn says all the things I’ve been saying about Askeladd for weeks – what a tragic figure he is, how alone his never-ending machinations have made him. “Isn’t it lonely?” is the poignant question Bjorn asks as he prepares to leave this world – and he admits that what he’s always wanted was to be Askeladd’s friend. But Askeladd isn’t the sort of man who has friends…
Askeladd is old by the standards of the age, and perhaps he is becoming sentimental in his dotage based on the events of last week and this. I don’t know that we can say for sure whether he was truthful when he called Bjorn his friend, or was merely offering some comfort to a dying comrade – but I do think it’d fair to say he didn’t hate Bjorn, as Bjorn said. Like Thorfinn Askeladd has made a choice, and the road he walks is resolutely a solitary one – but that doesn’t mean the man has no feelings. And as he prepares to “play” with Thorfinn once more, the sense is that he’s intent on teaching the lad a real lesson this time – that his patience is tapped, and he’s in truth he’s not remotely in a playing mood. I wouldn’t want to be Thorfinn for these next few minutes – it’s probably only Canute’s presence as referee that will prevent things from ending tragically.